Monday, November 23, 2015

Students don't know what is good for them

I have written about the problems with students evaluating classes previously, and about how it leads to a standard of pleasing students rather than challenging them. Today I found an article from last year that underlines the necessity of challenging students rather than pleasing them.

From the article:
Students are also not very good at recognising what helps them to learn. Instead, world-leading educational psychologist Robert Bjork from UCLA reports that students assess whether they have learnt something based on the ease with which they complete a related task.
That is why many students assume that reading or highlighting passages in their text-book, or merely listening to a lecture, is enough to produce learning. They mistake the ease of the task with greater knowledge. Time-consuming and effortful tasks, like self-testing their knowledge, are consequently seen by students as less efficient for their learning, despite the fact that the more difficult tasks produce the most learning.
This is a classic problem. If you challenge students into performing tasks they don't feel secure doing, they will blame the teacher if they don't perform well. Their struggles, which are actually signs of a potential learning process, become the teacher's failure when it's translated to the evaluation form. Best evaluation? Don't challenge them, and give them good grades:
As it happens, students who rated their current teacher most highly got better marks in their current course but did much worse in later courses. This confirms the fears of educators: students’ evaluations are linked with current grades, but also with students’ failure to learn things they need for the future. So, a student who is happy with their grade and teacher should worry — they may not have learnt that much.
This is a real problem, a trap that can ruin universities as educational institutions. While I think it is important to talk to students in order to identify some problems: too large or too small, old or irrelevant reading lists, teaching that goes well beyond the course, or does not happen at all (at one point it turned out the teacher had cancelled all classes, and nobody but the students knew), harassment, impropriety, confusion - the students are the ones who will notice it. But when that is covered and you have a decent teacher, the students may actually become destructive of their own learning process:
For students, it means it is important to discover what actually helps your learning and focus on that, and live with the fact that real learning takes effort. Poor marks probably do not mean you are stupid or the teacher is bad. It is more likely to mean you need to raise and/or redirect your effort.
Students should also pay less attention to student evaluations when choosing a university course — happy students may not be learning.
 And that is before we look at the teachers. Once we look at gender and ethnicity, other biases strike.

(Edited the last quote, thanks to comments!)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Public displays of sympathy in the age of social media

We constantly dress to signal our relationship to the world around us. We dress up  for respect, we dress down for solidarity. We check the dress code before going to an event, and we try to aim for the point that hits just right, or at least in the ball-park without being embarassing. To signal beyond this we wear pins, buttons, badges, ribbons and all kind of more or less subtle symbols for others to recognize. Sometimes this is done just to avoid embarassment, or to show some kind of conventional connection. At other times it's done out of deep sympathy and respect. You wear your best to your friend's wedding. You wear black for the funeral. Don't mix those up unless you really want to send an oppositional signal.

So why are we so critical of people dressing up their avatars for this kind of signal? The reactions to the tricolor used after the attacks in Paris November 13th are harsh. They attack the people who change their profile picture for a while, then move on. Some are angry that nobody wore the Lebanese flag after the tragedy in Beirut.  Some claim it is to show support to a nationalist system that just increases the tension and maintains the terror. Some just rage against the fashion of wearing random symbols, only to forget the cause the next week.

True, all true. But what is the right dress code when you are grieving the horror of such a brutal attack on a place that is close to your heart? If I was to go to a funeral, I'd wear black, offer my condolences and walk home to change, and nobody would complain. The people at the wedding in the church 30 minutes later, already gathering in their dresses and finery wouldn't complain that we aren't celebrating their happiness. And I would certainly not demand that they dress in black. They are dressing for their life, I am dressing for mine.

So why does Facebook avatars affect us so strongly that it's necessary to write about how false the expression is, or be jealous about the lack of sympathy for others? Is it a kind of selfish grief, a stage of anger and self-absorption that insists that there is only one important feeling, only one right way to feel it, only your struggle is true? Other attacks on expressions of sympathy indicate this may be so, the anger of seeing a ribbon supporting the sufferers of an illness that is crippling you and your family, the signs of awareness from the unaffected and healthy apparently mocking you with their presence - I am not linking because I don't want to point to any one personal cause, I am sure you have seen this yourself. They are the blogposts or tweets accusing others of being false, not knowing, not understanding, because you own pain is so deep, your own burden so heavy.

So what should we do? Wear jeans to both the funeral and the wedding? Never change the profile picture at any one time? Buy no ribbons, have no feelings but those approved by the blogosphere, the twitterati and the Facebook sharers? I don't think you mean that. Not if we are face to face. Who ever you are, who have been so annoyed with all those avatars suddenly changing that you need to lash out in your own grief, you don't really mean that I should not be permitted to express mine. You just want to hurt somebody, because you are hurting too. You just want to cry with somebody, because you are crying too. And we don't get the right dress code. It's ok. Even if we didn't get it right, we are still here, trying to express something. Some pain. Some joy. Some sympathy. Some support. Some love. Take it, or don't take it. But please accept that the emotions are real at this end too, even if for an afternoon, a week, a lifetime. And we use our avatars like we use our clothes, in an attempt to express something we may be too clumsy to get just right.

Feedback to the good students - the dilemma

Feedback is one of those really difficult things, and sometimes we screw up. I have a model for feedback: Start with something nice. Address the real problems. Suggest a few changes. End with something nice. It normally works. Then suddenly it doesn't.

I think one of the most difficult things we do is to give feedback on good work. I know I tend to ignore it, except from pointing out it's good, then moving on to what needs to be changed to make it ever better. This, of course, leads to an over-emphasis on the bad stuff, but that's what we want to change, right? So I spend time sorting out the aspects that are acceptable, struggling to find the potential for growth, and highlighting the kind of material I want to see more of. And that's why sometimes my feedback on weak work may look better than feedback on the good work.

Of course, it's a problem if we never say anything about why a good work is good. Just a general gold star isn't enough, but there is perhaps not all that much to say when a student has done exactly what I have tried to make them do for a few months. And then some good student takes his "yeah, great, perhaps work a bit more on this. By the way, great work." feedback and compares it with a lesser student's "this part here is really useful, and I like how you have emphasised this, and you probably can work more on this, and the connection here is very useful." and don't realise that the other feedback is on a very different type of work. It's on something weaker, something that needs a lot more effort and attention from me, something that needs to develop. Because yeah, your work is good. Go ahead like this. Do what you have been doing. I don't have to turn over every phrase of your work to find the good parts.

So, here's my message to the good students.

Do you get good grades or short comments of praise, but feel under-appreciated? Do you feel that your efforts never take you anywhere? Do you feel like the teacher never sees you, and moves on to the next student to encourage them, leaving you hanging? Here is what the teacher is really thinking.

"Oh, this is great. I don't really have anything to add. This person got it, and is on their way to where I want them to go and beyond. They are learning. They are developing. I love seeing this. Not a lot to say here, beyond telling them it's good. I wish they could all be this good. OK, a beauty-spot here. Let's just try to fix that. Otherwise, I love this. Now, next paper. Oh shit. OK, time to get creative and try to help this poor person. I really wish they could all be like that previous student. What can I offer that can help this student to be like the previous one?"

So yeah, good students, we love you. We sincerely love you. Sorry that the reward for being loved is to also be trusted. I trust you know where you are going. I don't think I should try to derail you when you're on your way. Getting out of the way of students who have their shit together is important. And, good student, you have places to go and things to do. Go do them. Without my approval, because you don't need it, you just need to keep doing this.

The truth is though: I do approve. I smile when I read the good papers. I take a deep breath. My teaching gains meaning when previous feedback leads to a good effort. But I want them all to be at your level, so forgive me, now that you're safe, I am off to try and haul that other one to safe ground.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Where is the tipping point?

The simultaneously funny and bleak Twitter account Shit Academics Say or @academicssay also have a blog. Here they use a bit more than 140 characters. The blog post I want to write about today is about academic publishing, and how academic journals have become one of the most profitable businesses out there. Or as they say: The most profitable obsolete technology in history.

Academic publishing is an increasing problem to academic production. Positioned in a small university with a small library budget, I am totally dependent on the large library next door, or the wonderful Danish Royal Library. I spend a few days a month in their spaces, downloading articles from their access, in order to be able to do the basics of lit. reviews. The universities spend enormous sums to keep us all in articles, and I try to do my best to make sure it's worth while, but at the same time I think this money is spent very, very badly.

The main point about academic journals is that they are peer reviewed. And we all know that the peer reviewing is the burden of our peers, which is you and me. What academic publishers provide is proofreading (minimal), setting and editing, printing, distribution, and managing the money. We all know that if all the content of the journals were freely available online, from everywhere, we would be quite happy to forego the whole printed part of that process. That takes care of distribution too. We already do both the writing and the reviewing, and often we also do the editing. So what's left is some practical administration, some proofreading and copy-editing, publishing online and managing the money.

I don't know how much labour goes into running a prestigious journal, but let's say all the universities that really need those specialised mathematics journals sat down and discussed what kind of editors they would need in order to create their own journals. Then they just stopped buying them, and spent the money paying for editors and online publishing. Since there's no need to buy anything, a whole layer of administration is gone. The costs to paper and distribution is gone. There's no need to control access, as all access would be free. There are of course a few snags here. Universities would like to promote their own scholars. This could be remedied for instance by making certain that the reviewers are from different universities, and by putting in a board of editors from related journals run by other universities. Working out these details in order to make sure there's not even more playing of the reviewing process with this system than with the old one would take a while, but it would be worth it. The whole process needs to be shook up a bit anyway.

In this process, academic journals would get actual competition. They would have to review what is developing into a vicious, predatory practice. And knowledge would be free to all, not just those with a prestigious, exclusive library card. The ones who would really benefit from this would be students from all over the world! Having one or several active academic editors working in-house in the fields a university is specialising on would also be a tremendous boost to the centers and communities. It would bring the editors in closer contact with the actual development of research, and into direct discourse with the scholars they are supposed to support. Today's system, with the peer review, does not really ensure an outside perspective, so it would be better to acknowledge this and enter into discourse directly. Several existing university presses are among the best in their fields, so that isn't really a particularly good argument either.

If European universities managed to get behind the Pisa agreement to create a uniform system of degrees and grades, it should absolutely be doable to start in Europe and do this for the academic publishing. Until then, I'll do my best to keep supporting the less predatory journals out there., come here, have a hug.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Behind "The Dark Side of Gameplay"

In June, the long awaited anthology The Dark Side of Gameplay: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments was published at Routledge. It contains 14 articles by 15 different authors, and an introduction by Jonas Linderoth and I. Editors are me, Jonas and Ashley ML Brown, and it's been a wonderful cooperation that has, I hope, brought you all a great book.

This, however, is not going to be a pre-review by somebody with stakes in the sale. I am not expecting huge sales at all, these Routledge books mainly go to libraries, and there's a limited amount of libraries at University with game/play scholarship. However, if you happen to be at one, do recommend this to your librarian! No, I wanted to tell you about this book, where it started and why it appeared to be so important that we went to all this work to see it written.

At Nordic DiGRA 2012, five game researchers I have liked for a very long time, were gathered for a panel: Ashley Brown, René Glas, Kristine Jørgensen, Jonas Linderoth, Torill Elvira Mortensen: Waking up at the Dark Side: Difficult Content in Playful Environments. We wanted to talk about the fact that it is possible to enjoy being the antagonist, the bad guy, without being a bad guy yourself. We wanted to write about the pleasure of sometimes feeling really bad, of losing and struggling. The topic was fear, sadism, aggression. After years of talking about the "the magic circle" as if it was some safe bubble, we wanted to address the fact that games sometimes contain really horrible things, it makes us play with topics, with emotions, with sensations and practices we are all perfectly aware would not be acceptable in real life, and we wanted to point out that this didn't necessarily mean that the persons doing so had to be morally corrupted.

The panel went really well, we were delighted with the reception and the discussion, and we decided to make it into a book. And so what for a long time was called "the dark play book" was born. Kristine and René were advisors, Jonas and I originally the editors, and Ashley the secretary. With the support of Gothenburg University and the IT University of Copenhagen, we got money for a workshop for the authors, and to pay Ashley (at the time still a Ph D student) as editorial secretary. At the end Ashley turned out to be such a force of organisational energy and such a committed partner, that we included her as editor to acknowledge her vital contribution.

But at this point, we were still looking for others to work with. Over the next months we wrote a call for articles which was sent out to select authors and had a meeting with an editor for a respected publisher to discuss if it was a viable topic, while Jonas and I scrounged for the funding mentioned above. The enthusiasm we were received with from other scholars was stunning, and in 2013 there was a great symposium in Gothenburg to discuss the first drafts of the articles. Almost all the authors managed to make their way there, and I think the book reflects the work done over the two days it lasted. The topics were discussed enthusiastically, the questions we needed to explore were clarified, and everybody present learned how their own work fit into that of the others. We all came away from it with a fantastic energy, and some of the participants have written letters of thanks to us, the editors, just for letting them be present, pointing out how vital it is to an academic career to learn the basics of constructive criticism and cooperation from peers. At this point, I was really in love with the project.

The work continued both when we were engaging with the book, and when we were doing other things. Now, 2012 was a year when it was tough to be a game scholar in Scandinavia. The year before gaming, particularly in World of Warcraft, had been viewed as a breeding ground for terrorists and killers. Faltin Karlsen, Kristine Jørgensen and I were all involved in the media discussions of that topic in Norwegian newspapers. Faltin ended up using a lot of the work he did in order to discuss games in public in the book A World of Excesses, where he discusses the effects of heavy gaming. I started edited this book on dark play, as a response to and exploration of the idea that provocative content in games only functions as an outlet for desires that will be acted upon in the future, and Kristine built on this work (and her own brilliant book Gameworld Interfaces) to secure funding for a four year research project on Games and Transgressive Aesthetics. (Yes, I get to hang out with these wonderfully smart people. It's the main upside of being in academia!) None of us studied the actual event in July 2011, but all of us felt the impact and the need to revise our view on games. Personally I needed to question my own love of games through research. And by editing this book, I managed to get a lot of other people to join me in that process!

The conclusion of The Dark Side of Gameplay isn't that games are a safe space, or necessarily always such a good and fun thing to do. It takes seriously and looks at scams, cheats, half-way criminal activities such as breaking game locks of commercial titles, violent and outrageous content, accusations of sadism and the meaning of in-game death. But I got to read a lot of wonderful articles about how this takes the step towards creating a mature medium, how it provokes thought and challenges ideas, the way art is supposed to do. And all through the comments, the proofing, the millions of checks of citations and quotes, the seemingly endless hours of adjusting type setting and writing authors with questions to details, I kept loving the work.

I don't know any more if this is a good book, I have invested too much in getting it out, and I am profoundly relieved. I think it's a book that needed to be written. Dark play, problematic topics, transgressive playfulness, it is currently one of the big buzzwords of game studies, and despite the long process of academic publishing it does feel as if it's on time. And I know I still love the book, three years after it all started.

Now it is your turn to enjoy how others think about games, the parts of games that is so often addressed negatively, when it's addressed at all. Hopefully, it will send you on a small version of the journey it has sent me on.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Four year old tears

Four years minus a day ago, I sat at the back of a conference room and cried, as I read about the bomb in Oslo and the shootings at Utøya, as I had logged on to a changed reality. Those bullets hit close to the heart of every Norwegian.

The following is Frode Grytten's poem about that Friday, about pain and grief and being Norwegian, about love and hate and politics and hope and defiance. Today is a day of grief and pain, a day to cry. Then it's time to wake up to love, to the future, to the hope of a better world.

etter 22. juli

etter at vi blei sprengt i filler
etter at fredagen fall ut av hendene på oss
etter at vi måtte lære oss norsk på ny
etter at sorga strekte seg heilt opp til håret
etter at dagane tok til å regne ned over oss

orda overlever ein 9mm glock
kjærleiken er kraftigare enn ei 500 kilos bombe
å halde hender er mektigare enn ladegrepet
eit lite kyss er viktigare enn 1500 sider med hat
eit vi er så mykje meir enn eit eg

det kjem eit nytt 22. juli, det må jo det
ferja skal frakte fleire bankande hjarte over
telta skal bli slått opp på grønt gras
morgonsola skal kysse øya vaken
hei, hei, på tide å stå opp og endre verda

Av Frode Grytten

Friday, May 22, 2015

There's a difference between asking new questions and hating players

Dear new readers and commenters. This post will have a slow response rate to comments and the usual strict moderation. I will try to respond, but if it becomes repetitive or overwhelms me, I will close the comments.

tl, dr: Researchers shouldn't believe all games are designed to make people be nice to each other. 

Let us look at the sentences that people dislike so strongly in my previous post.
Perhaps it is time, after years of thinking of games as an almost universally good thing and a medium to be defended, to question that truth. Perhaps games, design and gamers aren't so special after all, and need to be studied more as hostile objects resulting from a hostile culture, than as the labour of love it has been to so many of us.
I have to admit, those were hard lines to write. I love games and I love gamers. Over the years, this love has been viewed by peers as a lack of critical distance to research. I have, however, deliberately chosen to err on the side of the positive because I have had so many good experiences with gamers since I first published on games 19 years ago. Also, when people resisted this understanding of games as a positive thing, it made me want to ask the questions that were criticized for almost 20 years: Do games give people valuable experiences? Is there something to be said in favour of MMORPGs? Are players really just lazy and nasty, as people said at the time, or can they also be funny, smart, interesting and deeply engaged with a challenging pastime? Those were controversial questions when I started, and I have been asking them in different variations since. Most of the time, the answers I have found have confirmed my original hypothesis that there has to be something good, fun and interesting about games, but I came to that conclusion only by asking the - at the time - unpopular questions.

However, the last months have emphasized a side of gamers that I didn't expect to see. There is a group of gamers where the individuals are hostile, and who like to take this hostility to a wider audience through social media. Several of these use the #Gamergate tag when they do so. I know the arguments about this being third party trolls, but it is very hard to see the difference, particularly as #Gamergate finds anonymity to be more of a virtue than excluding said trolls. On that discussion: #Gamergate has made a decision about anonymity and no leadership, which I respect. But that means I and others have to accept that all who claim to be #Gamergate are #Gamergate.

Most of the time I have claimed that the most aggressive expressions are a matter of individuals with other problems, such as the recent example of the young man who was exposed as a "serial swatter". But as the evidence of hostile acts from gamers towards other gamers and others involved in the game community mounts, I have had to ask the questions I kept resisting. Is there something about games that encourages this, or is it society that is changing? My opinion leans towards the society changing, recognized in other game-related aggression, such as for instance hooliganism, but this is still a hypothesis, and if I want to find out, I have to ask a lot of questions.

To follow up on the hooligan hypothesis. As a game researcher, I realise that I have seen the equivalent of hooligans in games before. They are the griefers, the corpse-campers, the ninja-looters, the spammers on the different channels, the pick-up groups that keeps trashing the other players until they are too intimidated to participate, the players who go outside of games to attack the game companies and individuals in them with exaggerated aggression. I have just not focused on them. My question is whether I should study this hostility. Perhaps it's time to stop being so in love with the object we research and the people involved, and look at it differently. And that is what those last sentences say. A hostile object is an object that invites aggression and hostility. There are a lot of games out there whose design favour players with a hostile play style.

A not particularly original example, but hopefully one that illustrates the meaning of games as hostile objects: Let's look at instancing in World of Warcraft. When the game changed to include a cross-realm mechanism for inviting players into instances, the aggression in instance runs rose. The trash-talk and the unfriendliness increased.Why was that? Was it because gamers were hostile people, or because something in the game encouraged this behaviour? Now if you were grinding for materials, reputations or currency, there was a set number of instances you could run each day. Several players would run these instances every day on several characters. The last thing you wanted to do was to run it with a crew that slowed you down. If you were in a quick group, you encouraged this group to stay together, if you were in a slow group, you tried to speed them up or just break them up, so you could get into a group with players more to your liking. Language is one way to do this, and so the impatient player would act as unpleasant as possible without making themselves the jerk everybody would agree to kick. My question to this would then be: Is this hostility a result of the player being a jerk, or the game being designed to reward hostility? I'd say a bit of both. There are great players who manage to make their group move quicker simply through being kind, friendly and good. But that particular mechanism invites aggression, and since groups are formed cross-realm, there are no repercussions for being unpleasant. Next time, you start all over again with strangers, and perhaps another character.

A hostile gamer is a gamer that acts aggressively towards others. I conflated that with objects because I still think people are good, and being aggressive is not a deliberate choice of "Now I am going to screw these idiots over!" When they act hostile towards others it's because the structure of the game invites hostility. Researchers study this structure as procedurality, and it is an example of how games restrict and lead gamers to certain actions. I understand if some people read that as objectifying gamers. To return to the World of Warcraft example: the game offers many ways to play, but some are more rewarding than others, and these then become the accepted or standard way of playing. The game gives the player just a few options, and the player tries to do the best within these frames, hence being to a greater or lesser extent controlled by the game, made into an object of the game mechanics.

Do I want to change games? No, I, personally, want to understand games. If a journalist, developer or modder want to use what I learn about games and play, that is up to them. My job is to keep asking questions, preferably the difficult ones that others want to silence.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

DiGRA 2015 aftermath, the hashtag anger

Edit May 22nd: Tonight, at 20.00 Central European Time, I will close the comments on this blogpost. The discussion has been interesting, and it has provided more data on the opinions and viewpoints of Gamergate. For that I thank those who have participated and who may participate over the next 12 hours.

DiGRA 2015 was a great event for those who participated. The keynote speakers were great, even the ones I disagree with. Actually, I find that disagreeing with well informed and thoughtful keynotes is at least as useful as finding my inner fan girl.

I was part of a panel that has been described by Frans Mäyrä, with a fantastic lineup of researchers. I always feel like it's an out of body experience when I find myself with these people whose books I buy, read and obsess over, and this was no different. The transgressive aesthetics workshop was incredibly useful, to open up for new angles and discuss and challenge old ideas about what "transgressive" means, and how it can be a useful tool to gain a deeper understanding of games and game strategies.

During the event the twitter hashtag #Digra2015 was in use, although with the very clear knowledge that it would be watched and very likely flooded by the movement Gamergate, which has been targeting DiGRA for several months. Their main argument was that radical feminists run DiGRA, that DiGRA is a think tank that does not operate by regular academic standards, that it has an agenda of making gamers politically correct, a plan which is financed by DARPA (summary of claims here), and they have been blaming DiGRA for being the source of the many articles they claim are all about "the death of the gamers". We have seen a lot of examples of charts that "prove" how DiGRA is connected to and influence the game industry, and they have been using the informal notes from a fishbowl at DiGRA 2014 to "prove" their claims. Through the months since then there have been a few eager twitter accounts arguing that DiGRA should be burned to the ground, combined with several doxings and threats to game scholars on 8chans boards, both on the Gamergate boards and the related boards.  So most researchers took to Twitter very carefully, with a strong awareness of the public nature of the feed.

Oddly, the hashtag remained civil until Saturday afternoon, the third day of the conference. Then one account started spamming it with memes, mainly funny and humorous images ridiculing the readers. That night, as the researchers went out to party, the Gamergate members decided to flood the hashtag. Obviously, the people who flooded the hashtag were not in the same time zone as the conference, because next morning the tag was again fairly calm. But over the night it had been flooded with anime, porn, and retweets of the tweets from DiGRA ridiculing the discussions over the previous three days. The main theme of the people flooding it, beyond general "fuck academia", "leave gamers alone" and "raze DiGRA to the ground" was a sense of glee that they had managed to turn the hashtag toxic. This was, apparently, a victory.

Over the next few days, Gamergate kept up the flooding. A few scholars, me among those, invited the more reasonable of the spammers to conversation. Very few wanted to engage beyond defending their actions. This was mainly a defense based on the assumption that DiGRA articles are  judgmental of gamers and game culture. Disregarding the very strong bias of DiGRA academia in favour of research being conducted by people who are also players and gamers, Gamergate was claiming the right to control research on games, censoring the topics and dictating the results, while also accusing DiGRA of being unethical and dictating research results.

After a few days of flooding the hashtag, a game developer got heavily engaged. Mark Kern, who has worked on the team creating World of Warcraft, decided to join the mob flooding the #digra hashtag. World of Warcraft is a solidly studied game, to the point that we can almost talk about World of Warcraft studies as a genre of its own. I was part of the process of writing the first anthology on WoW, and have both played and studied the game since. This book was published after Kern left WoW, as is most of the later WoW research. Digital Culture, Play and Identity is still perhaps the book that most closely addresses the game as it was when Kern knew it.

As far as I know though, Mark Kern has not read this book, nor any other articles on game research, until he started tweeting about the stupidity of game research.

Not only does he not like the research DiGRA does, he also claims that the tweets are libelous. Now, if a research association, or members of a research association, actually circulated libelous slides, that would be a bad thing. However, if they happen to be making slides with a funny, ironic or even quite correct text that somehow responds to a campaign heavy with  misrepresentation, lies, harassment and threats, that isn't libel. Claiming they are libel, if they aren't - now that can be libel, if the speaker has credibility to the point of being able to harm the person or organization being attacked. Which leads us into a very funny little paradox, and if we go too far down that path, lawyers will take over the world.

The important part is how Mark Kern feels that he, like many other performers or creators of cultural objects, knows better than the critics. This is a very common position to take. Nobody likes to hear anything but praise, so when faced with criticism, no matter how good or well grounded, film-makers, authors, actors, painters, sculptors, journalists, and just about every other person who has dared to create something which then is criticized, respond with the same knee-jerk response: let's see you do it better. Which is why, when Gamergate wanted to "peer-review" the DiGRA articles, the scholars - me among them - responding were consciously suppressing that response and offered support for the process. Kern does not suppress the knee-jerk response though, as one researcher responds to his criticism of DiGRA by asking what Kern actually knows of the research.

Mark Kern is an example of the type of push-back against criticism which is both expected and common when anybody, scholars, amateurs or professional critics, start looking systematically at any cultural expression and ask more of it than just superficial entertainment. This reaction proves, just as the entire Gamergate affair does, that game criticism and research is growing up. It is no longer simply scratching at the surfaces of description, as we did in the first few years, at which time we tried to understand what was actually going on, creating a language of academic discourse, and fighting for the value of a thrashed and disrespected medium. The anger, the shouts of "don't criticize if you can't do the same as me", the misunderstandings and the deep fear that Gamergate expresses, demonstrates that the research has touched a nerve, has come too close for comfort.

I am not going to say game research is "winning", as that is Gamergate terminology. There is no victory to be had here. Reacting too much to the aggression will skew research, and make it certain that we start having a bias against a subgroup of people who claim the tag "gamer" for themselves. It will give Gamergate influence in a detrimental manner, as they are working very hard to make game researchers hate "gamers". However, it proves the relevance of game research. Games are deeply entrenched in modern culture, and understanding game culture combined with the social media ecology may be more important now than it has ever been. It also forces researchers to reflect on terminology, on user models and pre-conceptions, and on the value of games, which we so far have mainly taken for granted. Perhaps it is time, after years of thinking of games as an almost universally good thing and a medium to be defended, to question that truth. Perhaps games, design and gamers aren't so special after all, and need to be studied more as hostile objects resulting from a hostile culture, than as the labour of love it has been to so many of us.

Edit: I found the tweet that pronounced the twitter feed toxic, and added it above.
Note: I have always moderated the comments on this blog heavily, and I will keep doing that.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Academic writing, Torill's take on it.

There's a blogpost making the rounds in social media about the "psychology" of common writing advice. I actually quite like most of the tips in the article, and some of the reasons, but I am not sure if I would claim the reasons are all that psychological. But let's have a peek at the advice.
"Write shorter" is always a good idea, even with patient readers. Of course, "short" is relative, and the problem isn't really that it's easier to type words than to delete them. I can delete a whole document in one go. The problem is to prioritize. When cutting, what can I cut without removing a vital piece of information? With the disastrous memory of removing a chapter my supervisor felt was redundant, just to have the examiner ask for exactly the topic covered in that chapter, I don't take "make this shorter" advice from just any odd editor, thank you very much. So if I was to rewrite "why you fail" I'd say: Because you don't know what is important in your own text. And in "how to fix" I'd ask you to look at your initial reasoning for writing this at all, your hypothesis, your question, your topic line. If it isn't clarifying your original goal, throw it out. Or change your goal and throw out the rest.

"Shorten your sentences." This is solid advice for academic writers in particular, and quite a few non-academic. I'll point to advice one, reason one, and stop this paragraph now.

"Rewrite passive voice." Absolutely, but not because of your insecurity. Or, in a way, but it comes by way of power structures. We believe that if we can make it look like something happens "naturally", without human agency, it appears inevitable. At the same time - sometimes it is absolutely vital to be able to use the English (or other language) passive, and if you are less than passive about that, here's an interesting article for you.

"Eliminate weasel words." Obviously not an academic writing this. While I am in favour of reducing the amount of "maybe", "perhaps" and "under the right circumstance we can understand this as", there are cases when these words are not weak, but true. This isn't a bad science article, even if it has a few sensationalist phrases, but it downplays a few of the important aspects of the more expansive report. The main thing is the usual problem: correlation is not causation. In the study they have found that expert gamers have more activity in certain parts of the brain than more casual gamers. Now they are building on theories and previous studies on brain development to assume that this is a result of gaming, and they are doing a longitudinal study to see if that is true. This in order to test if the truth is that you need an active and well developed brain in order to compete at the top level of gaming. That won't snag the readers though. "You need to be really smart in order to do well in gaming" isn't exactly news, considering that you need to be really smart to do well anywhere. So the "weasel words" get eliminated, and the message becomes something along the line of "you will be smarter if you play games, says research" - which isn't what they are saying.  I think I'll keep that room for error in my writing until I am absolutely certain I am right. Then I'll say it in a short, active sentence in a clear, compressed abstract.

"Replace jargon with clarity." This is eternal truth. However - pick your audience. Sometimes jargon is clarity. If you had read Eco's The role of the reader you know the distinction between the model reader and the empirical reader. We can replace that term with "try to make your model reader and empirical reader overlap." Of course, to do so I use jargon, but this is a jargon that, combined with (Eco 1979:7), allows my model reader to quickly grasp what Eco used a book to express. I'd need to write a few books myself to make my students grasp the distinction if I couldn't point them at Eco. However, don't mess around with the Eco understanding of readers if you want to tell the PR department to identify your target audience though.

"Cite numbers effectively." Yes. Totally agree here.

"Use I, we and you." This one is tricky. Not because I disagree, but because removing the first person is an exercise in taking on another point of view, and positioning the reasons for the argument beyond "me". "I said so, now believe me" is not a good argument, unless I have asked you how you feel about something. But I do land on the side of using the first person, because it underlines that there is no neutral, objective machine that produces this text - I do so, and I take responsibility for it, errors and all. Here, have a reference to somebody who discusses this more in depth, ironically anonymously from of Duke University writing studio.

"Move key insights up." This is journalism 101, and the opposite of clickbait. Great advice for introductions, and why the introduction should be written last. I don't think we ignore it because we are trained to write deductively, but because it is through writing we actually do the work of deduction. It happens because the writing process is when we think through the material, and so the revelation at the end is a reflection of the process.

"Cite examples". OK, this one made me giggle. Academic writing is more "CITE EVERYTHING". Also "spend half your time on research." Nah, it's more like "spend your life on research and teaching, then put everything on hold while you hide out in a secret parallel universe because if you used actual time on the writing, you could do some more research." If casual writing is research low, academic writing is a matter of cramming enough research in there.

"Give us some signposts" - yeah, I am fine with that. It's what you should do in the introduction.

Now it's time to offer you Torill's revised ten tips. It's a result of thinking about this through writing, not the goal of my writing. Here, on this blog, I am the model reader.

Monday, April 13, 2015

It's about ethics in...

The last few months one of the rallying cries online has been "It's about ethics in games journalism." This has been the justification for extreme harassment, the flimsier the justification, the more intense the harassment.


However, some of the people talking about ethics in games journalism have meant it. They have pointed out how companies give out early review copies, in exchange for favourable reviews and marketing deals between developers of games depicting modern fire arms, and arms salesmen to mention two examples. As with all journalism, there is a potential for corruption in games journalism. And it may be even larger here, as the journalists are few, access to the material is hard to get, the fans are eager and often not particularly critical of their favourite journalists, and there is a lack of education. In the words of Nieborg and Sihvonen:

The practices of game journalism are informal and adaptable, and due to the precariousness of the work conditions in the field they may also appear as rather unprofessional. It is customary for the game media (especially the free zines and websites) to employ fans and enthusiasts who are willing to submit game (p)review texts without any other compensation than perhaps the inspection copy of the title they were reviewing. As we have suggested, game journalists often need to balance their act and keep on an even keel with the pressures coming from both the game industry and their readers. The proposed preliminary outline of the occupational ideology of the modern day game journalist is therefore based on a new conception of journalism: journalists do not aim to work as watchdogs of the establishment, but rather as mediators of the value statements that deliver game capital.
With the development of a new medium, the collapse of the hegemony of the traditional media, and the increase of enthusiast journalism, game journalism ends up in an awkward counterpoint, where it is hard to decide what is journalism and what is not. Bain, one of the content producers who pointed out the "Shadow of Mordor" issue linked to above, produces videos as "Cynical Brit" and tweets under the name "Totalbisquit", and he goes out of his way to point out that he is not a journalist. This to point out that he can not be expected to follow the ethical guidelines of a journalist.

So, what do we expect from journalists? What is the ethics in reivewing that game journalists do not live up to?

One of the demands from game journalists is more transparency. David S. Allen discusses the problem with transparency, and points out how this is not necessarily the best way to go for traditional journalism.
Siegel suggests that his lack of transparency was wrong because ethical standards are different in a printed publication than they are in the online community. Examples like Siegel’s reinforce the idea that transparency is far from a universal goal in newer media, but rather an instrumental value enlisted to meet certain ends. Siegel was punished for failing to be transparent even though what he did is a common and accepted occurrence in online communication. The magazine used transparency as a way to protect its jurisdiction and its legitimacy. But it also helps us understand the complicated nature of transparency in areas such as identity formation and truth. Transparency might be important to the discovery of truth, but if that transparency limits the ability of a person to freely express himself or herself, it might potentially limit that search.
 However, it's not just a problem to the journalists, who have to deal with different expectations from their audience and blurred lines between regular online practice and journalistic practice, apparently the public relations departments are not all that concerned with ethics either. This, of course, creates another problem, as the companies reach for control of the communication based on their content. The most recent example of this is the discussion around Nintendo's relationship to youtubers. Their "creator's program" is a system that takes advantage of insecurity around copyright regulations to claim a cut of the income of all who actively play and review or playthrough or perform their games on Youtube. This is a topic where we so far have very few pre-existing examples to go to in order to understand whether or not this is fair or ethical behaviour. On the one hand, the many streamers on Youtube or Twitch who perform the different games can be said to be performers like musicians and actors. If we view a game as the script for a play or a sheet of music, then there are certain rules that says yes, it is reasonable to ask them for payment. However, if the streamers are critics and commentators, it's a very different matter.

Either way, they are not necessarily free of "ethics." One of many attempts at writing a code of ethics for online content creators is this from 2011, by Morten Rand-Hendriksen. This takes into consideration transparency, protection of sources, economical considerations and freedom of speech. This is a decent, if not yet fully web 2.0 and beyond compliant code of ethics, fairly well synchronised with the code of the Society of Professional Journalists.

So, to the question that prompted this: where can those who are interested in ethics in game journalism go, if they don't stay within the by now painfully splintered hashtag which shall not be named? I don't have a definite answer. But as we have seen a few examples of here, ethics in journalism online is not a new discussion from 2014. Games journalism needs to mature, and it needs to be discussed, but it is important to do so in context with several other discussions. As Bain points out, "journalist" may not be the correct title for game streamers. If so they may be performers, in which case Nintendo's claim to a part of the income from their play may not be as unreasonable as it first seems. Should there be a media-specific set of rules for online journalism? Is reviewing a video game different from commenting on a sports event? An evening at the opera? And what about community- or citizen journalism? In an article uploaded to with no further information about where it is published, Jessica Roberts discusses the problems of holding these media to professional standards - and also the problem of citizen journalism competing directly with professional journalists, and how this impacts the quality of the content.

What the internet truly does, is to question the abilities of the readers. With the extreme variety of available content, perhaps what we need to look at isn't an ethics of the writers, but an ethics of the reader? A list of questions to ask of every bit of information found, and of ourselves after reading? The real responsibility online rests, today, with the readers and their ability to read critically, nuanced but still with good will and sufficient understanding.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Jante and imageboard culture

Over the last months imageboard culture has been a lot more visible over the Internet than previously - or, at least to me. In order to understand it, I can recommend two reads, the short version being A man in black Jay Allen's "How imageboard culture shaped #gamergate", the somewhat longer version is Gabriella Coleman's Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy, her wonderful work on Anonymous.

What both authors note is how the 'chan culture values anonymity, and how they go about enforcing it. The technology is designed for a strange kind of surveilled anonymity, where everybody posts behind the same username (mostly "anonymous"), but the moderators know the IP addresses - and several participants build traps in order to catch the addresses of others. On the social surveillance side of enforcing anonymity is the attitude towards those who break the consensus that being part of the faceless crowd is good, these are spoken about in a derogatory manner as "namefags" or "tripfags". Their sin is to want to be different, to retain their own identity in a sea where the safety of all depends on unity. By rejecting identification and an individual voice, imageboard users can experiment safely within their boundaries, protected by the community the way a herring is safe in the camouflage of the school.

This reflects something Noell-Neuman notes in her discussions of public opinion in her work on the spiral of silence. Public opinion is, according to her, formed through an almost subconscious awareness of the position of all others around you. Through being social humans, reading the subtle signs of the society surrounding us, opinion is formed not in massive leaps, but in small, almost unremarkable increments. This is how fish in a school will know which direction the school is heading, through a constant, immersed reading of all the fish around them. This metaphor fits well with the idea that anonymity will let the strongest arguments float to the top, one of the main arguments in favour of chanonymity. However, the fish in a school do not necessarily swim in the most rational direction, they just swim in the direction of the majority.

Another description of this type of socially enforced unity has found its poetic expression in Aksel Sandemoses book "A fugitive crosses his tracks", where he describes "the law of Jante". The Jante Law has, in many ways, come to describe everything bad about small-town Scandinavia, but like the enforced and carefully surveilled anonymity of chan culture, it also creates a strong sense of unity, loyalty and understanding of equality. At its best, this culture aims at a general and mutual quality of life as more valuable than the quality of life for individuals, it can almost be seen as a rallying cry for utilitarian hedonism. At its worst - which was how Sandemose experienced it - it is destructive, harsh, cruel, and it cuts down all creativity, all independent rational thinking, and creates small-minded, mean individuals.
  1. You're not to think you are anything special.
  2. You're not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You're not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You're not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You're not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You're not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You're not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You're not to laugh at us.
  9. You're not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You're not to think you can teach us anything.
I don't know about you, but I think I'll go read Sandemose again. Written in 1933, it is obviously not limited to a place and a time. It is rather the law of enforced group thinking, of intense social policing and mob rule, and can let us understand something as surprising, but also human, as chan culture.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

On the Metro: Life in Copenhagen #11

Most of the time I ride my bike when I want to go somewhere. I even have winter tires (after my time in Umeå) for when the ice just won't melt. But I can't be bothered to change tires if I think the snow won't last, so I do get to use the wonderfully efficient Copenhagen metro.

This morning I got to overhear a very funny conversation. To understand what made me bite my tongue to keep from both laughing and getting involved, you need to know that Copenhageners want to be trendy, healthy, and international, while they love food, drink and coffee. They like this to the point that they don't really care to research the trends they adore, as long as these trends are international and claim to offer some kind of health benefit.

Today's conversation was on butter coffee, or as the Americans call it, "bulletproof coffee". This is, according to the conversation, incredibly healthy, it gives you energy, helps burn calories and helps stave off cravings! A miracle! And it's the way they drink coffee in Tibet, probably with some kind of goats butter though.

Somehow, all of those statements are correctish, but let's peek at why, you well-groomed Danish trendfollowers (just to let you know, I know this because I am interested in the same things, so this is a joke on me too, sometimes.)

First, what they drink in Tibet is butter tea. They have done so forever, it's black tea with dri butter and milk. Dri is the female yak. Of course, if Tibetans drink coffee, it's quite likely that they will think "why not drink this coffee the way we drink our tea?"

Next, butter, oil, coconut oil has a lot of calories. Do you remember what calories are? It's a measure of energy. So when you eat or drink something with a lot of calories, you get more energy.

Does butter in your coffee help you burn fat? Well, some say it may, such as slide 9 from this webMD. It is a claim that keeps being repeated, so there may be something in it. But if so, it's the coffee, and hardly the fat.

As for the cravings, well, if you take in enough calories, you will be less hungry. If you are not hungry, you have less cravings. Also, these are slower calories than sugar, so you don't get the peak/crash of blood sugar you get when having sugar in your coffee.

Anyway, the really funny part is the mystery of the butter coffee. It magically gives more energy, helps burn fat and is invested with the magic of the Tibetan, as well as the magic of grass-fed cattle butter and secret oils.

The one main benefit over your regular coffee with cream? No lactose. So if you are sensitive to lactose you can get the benefits of cream in your coffee without the pain. I'll keep drinking my coffee Italian style, though. Did you know Cappucino was invented by monks living in the high mountains in modern day Italy, Switzerland and Austria? Makes you feel full and sates cravings, gives you more energy, and wakes you up. Also, it's really nice on a cold day, of which there are a lot in the Alps and in Tibet. It's a miracle, and you don't need to start breeding yak to benefit.